Spoilers will follow...
If Murder House was about the horrors of adultery and family and Asylum was a terrifying exploration of sanity and institutionalism, American Horror Story: Coven is about persecution and survival. Taking a cue from the X-Men, Coven follows Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) as she she discovers her witchy abilities is sent to a special school in New Orleans. Unlike traditional witches, Coven's are an almost extinct breed of women with very specific and unique abilities who are consequently persecuted for them. Zoe's "power", for instance, is that she kills whoever she has sex with while two of her peers are psychic and telekinetic.
The word-play of the title of Coven's premiere episode, "Bitchcraft," is indicative of the humor and playfulness we can expect this season . While last year's Asylum was chockfull of gallows humor, it still displayed a pervasive dark and despairing sensibility and it wasn't until the final few episodes any of the main characters were granted a measure of justice and benediction for all the horrors that had been visited upon them.
The end of "Bitchcraft" assures us this season will be different. The premiere is laced top-to-bottom with American Horror Story's brand of humor - a potent mix of dry wit, gallows humor and high farce. Coven shares more tonal similarities with True Blood and Buffy than last year's Asylum, yet the premiere still has teeth and isn't afraid to go to the dark places. The one incident of sexual violence in "Bitchcraft" was brutal in its depiction but was also followed up with a swift act of justice by the wronged party cementing her depiction as a character with agency and not merely a victim. The final few minutes also provides a measure of assurance that there will be long-lasting consequences for this character-beat. More than that though, the incident establishes a sense of camaraderie and sisterhood -- albeit contentious -- between the young witches this season.
The cast in Coven is second to none. Ryan Murphy's shows have always had a knack for giving his actors fun material to work with and it's not surprising that the stable of talent at his disposal has grown to its current heights. Each character has a fun moment to work with in the season premiere and it's not hard to see why so many big name actors have been attracted to this show.
Newcomer Kathy Bates plays Madame Delphine LaLaurie, quickly established within the cold open as one of the most despicable characters to ever appear on this show. And despite this her sick and perverse beauty regimen is just plain funny. Bates's LaLaurie is a testament to the fact that heinous characters and entertaining TV don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Of course, American Horror Story cornerstone Jessica Lange is no stranger to walking this tight rope. Lange's supreme witch Fiona Goode shares more similarities with Constance than Sister Jude and it's great to behold. Seeing Lange bring a third American Horror Story character to life waylays any initial skepticism that existed when it was first announced the show would recycle cast members season to season. While Goode is still much different from Constance and Jude, the continuity of Lange's presence in the show to date very much informs how we take Goode. It's a fascinating intangible that no other series has been able to exploit until now.
Taissa Farmiga and Emma Roberts as Zoe and Madison Montgomery do an excellent job of anchoring the younger half of the cast. Farmiga is our entry point into this season and her understated gothic presence has always been a great fit for this show. More than that though, Farmiga effortlessly plays the mix of innocence, sardonic wit and tragedy required to make her character work. Emma Roberts meanwhile gets to let loose as Hollywood diva Madison. Roberts excels at delivering the scathing putdowns this character is given but when she's given more emotionally draining scenes to play she has no problem soliciting viewers' sympathies.
While those four characters were the focal points of "Bitchcraft," Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and company round out the rest of the ensemble with equally great turns. Denis O'Hare's Spalding is also an early frontrunner to take Sons of Anarchy's Otto's mantle of Most Abused Character on TV.
What's most exciting about Coven, however, is the versatility of the show's heightened reality and the writing team's willingness to exploit this. Ryan Murphy has long since diverged from the increasingly common trend of naturalism in "prestige" cable TV. Dating back to Popular and Nip/Tuck, Murphy has always tried to make the most of the medium with his shows. Everything is a frenetic spectacle: acting, editing, mise-en-scéne. His shows feature the kinds of musical numbers, colorful characters and villains that can only exist in a heightened reality wildly different than our own. And in his previous shows this has often been a criticism. American Horror Story with its mini-series structure is the perfect vehicle for him to do his thing with reckless abandon.
At the same time executive producer Tim Minear is also known for his love of non-linear episodes and experimenting with the form of TV and American Horror Story definitely allows for both this and the wit his scripts are know for. The addition of Doug Petrie to the writing team should also prove to be interesting. Petrie was responsible for forming and guiding the character of Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer so the chance to see him write so many morally ambiguous young female characters in Coven this year opens up a whole world of possibilities.
Coven represents an incredibly fun premise and a great assemblage of talent being given the opportunity to do what they enjoy and excel at. Ultimately, the great tragedy of this season may be that it'll all be over after thirteen episodes. As premises go, the idea of a school for witches is so broad and versatile that it's a shame to think we'll only get one season of it while the big four networks will increasingly try and develop long-running shows around restrictive, narrow and frustrating ideas.
Please check out my blog Team Pasha for more opinion pieces, reviews and rants.